Toronto Fringe: Turning up the heat in a complex power struggle in the gripping, darkly funny Anywhere

Cass Van Wyck & Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster. Costumes by Lindsay Dagger Junkin. Photo by Emily Dix.

 

One Four One Collective and The Spadina Avenue Gang take us to the middle of a tension-filled stand-off between a suburban Airbnb host and guest with Michael Ross Albert’s gripping, darkly funny Anywhere, directed by David LaFontaine and running in the Factory Theatre Studio for Toronto Fringe.

Returning late from her last day at a business conference, bus tour booking agent Liz (Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster) finds her Airbnb host, bartender Joy (Cass Van Wyck), waiting up for her; and Joy’s not happy. An interrogation kicks off an uncomfortable debate and anger-tinged power struggle as the tables turn and Liz confronts Joy about the events of the previous evening—events that Liz can’t entirely recall, only that they included Joy’s estranged husband.

Part mystery, part psychodrama, part class struggle, Anywhere starts at a slow boil; then the heat gets turned up as suspicions, confessions and demands explode—and the verbal sparring takes an unexpected turn.

Outstanding work from Ch’ng Lancaster and Van Wyck in this sharp, compelling game of human chess; each revealing and concealing as accusations shift and tides turn.

Anywhere continues in the Factory Theatre Studio until July 14; check the show page for exact dates and times. Yesterday’s afternoon show was packed—and Ross’s other Toronto Fringe show, The Grass is Greenest at the Houston Astrodome, is sold out* for the run—so best to book ahead.

Speaking of The Grass is Greenest…, it turned out to be a Michael Ross Albert double header for me yesterday—purely by chance; that review will be up next.

*Want to check if the show you want to see is sold out? The Toronto Fringe folks have set up a page for sold-out shows, updated daily.

 

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Compelling storytelling in the riveting, edgy, darkly funny Slip

Clockwise, from top: Alex Paxton-Beesley, Daniel Pagett, Mikaela Dyke & Anders Yates—photo by Alec Toller

Circlesnake Productions remounts its production of Slip, collectively written by the ensemble and directed by Alec Toller—opening in the Tarragon Theatre Workspace last night.

Walking into what appears to be a crime scene—some of us walking through it to get to the bank of seats opposite the entrance—we become immersed in Jane’s (Mikaela Dyke) apartment. Pieces torn out of books, scraps of paper, post-its litter the floor and cover the walls; and there’s a banner with a strange interlocking symbol (set by Bronwen Lily, lighting by Wesley McKenzie). Jane lies dead in the middle of the floor, red hood pulled up covering her face.

Detective Lynne (Alex Paxton-Beesley) and her partner Mark (Daniel Pagett) assess the scene as they await the arrival of medical examiner Blake (Anders Yates). Is it murder or suicide? Perfectly matched, they work at piecing together a story for this incident, playfully one-upping each other in a private, quick-paced game as each comes up with theories and trajectories.

As the detectives sift through photographs and other evidence found on the scene, we see pieces of Jane’s story played out in flashback—inspired by a photo Lynne finds on a shelf: a relationship with a young black woman, one of two people witnesses saw entering and exiting the apartment. Marina (Nicole Stamp) is Jane’s ex-girlfriend, still on friendly terms and concerned about Jane’s welfare. And we learn that the young ginger-haired man seen in the vicinity turns out to be Chris (Yates), Jane’s brother.

Meanwhile, Lynne is a subject of particular interest in a tribunal investigating an incident where she and Mark pursued a perp into a darkened alley and shots were fired. And she’s in the dog house with their boss Passader (Stamp), who expects great things from her. Brilliant and known for her remarkable instincts, Lynne has been anxious and off her game lately. And it’s not just because of the tribunal—she’s been forgetting, losing her grip on her memory and sense of time. And the investigation into Jane’s death becomes personal—maybe too personal.

Outstanding work from the cast in this tale where crime procedural meets psychological thriller meets dark comedy. Paxton-Beesley and Pagett have amazing chemistry as the two detectives; dedicated and good at their jobs, Lynne and Mark are well-matched, riffing off ideas and theories with a playful, mercurial banter and a good-natured sense of competition. Beneath the professional, hard shell exteriors are two damaged souls. Paxton-Beesley (no stranger to playing detective—Murdoch Mysteries fans will recognize her as Murdoch’s childhood friend turned private detective Winifred “Freddie” Pink) gives a compelling, heartbreaking performance of Lynne’s journey; Jane’s story hits close to home—and the dawning realization of what will it mean for a beloved career she’s dedicated her life to. And Pagett reveals the softer, conflicted side of Mark; a man struggling with alcohol and having a ‘normal’ life when he goes home from the job. Supportive and loyal to Lynne, Mark can’t help but be suspicious and concerned about her recent erratic behaviour.

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Mikaela Dyke & Nicole Stamp—photo by Alec Toller

Dyke gives a moving performance as Jane; deeply troubled, fragile and lost, Jane reaches out in an attempt to reconnect with ex Marina, but can’t bring herself to tell her what’s wrong—revealing and mysterious at the same time. Her perceptions of family are in stark contrast with that of her brother; whose version of the story is true? Stamp shows some great range as the hard-ass, domineering Passader, who has big plans for Lynne and demands she doesn’t screw it up; and the loving, kind Marina who longs to be there for Jane, but whose care and compassion can only go so far. Yates is hilarious as the wisecracking ME Blake, who doesn’t particularly enjoy his job, but game for the quick-paced, sharp-witted exchanges with Lynne and Mark. And he brings an edge of pragmatism and deep-seated pain to Jane’s brother Chris.

The immersive staging puts the audience on either side of Jane’s apartment, giving us a fly-on-the-wall’s-eye view of the proceedings. Photographs and writings become jumping off points for flashbacks, revealing new pieces of the puzzle. Memory and story weave in and out—and stories intersect and combine to a stunning and heart-wrenching revelation.

Compelling storytelling in the riveting, edgy, darkly funny Slip.

 Slip runs in the Tarragon Workspace till April 2; advance tickets available online—strongly recommended as it’s an intimate space with limited seating.

In the meantime, check out the interview with director Alec Toller on Stageworthy Podcast with host Phil Rickaby.

Former high school pals reunite to solve an old, gruesome mystery in the dark, macabre, thoughtful Swan

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Bria McLaughlin & Michelle Chiu in Swan – photos by Cesar Ghisilieri

Finish what you start.

Little Black Afro Theatre joins forces with Filament Incubator for a production of Aaron Jan’s Swan, directed by Jan and dramaturged by Lucy Powis; and opening last night to a packed house in the Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) Backspace.

As we enter the theatre and settle into our seats, the playing space (Aram Heydarian, who designed the costumes), sound (Kevin Feliciano) and foggy, atmospheric lighting (Samuel Chang) aptly set the tone for this disturbing tale of violence. Three piles of feathers line the apron. Centre stage is a wooden deck-like structure – and above it, a murder of black birds hangs like a menacing Hitchcockian mobile. Underneath the hum of chatting audience members, you can hear the gentle sound of lapping water and birds.

Returning home to Hamilton after a 10-year absence, writer Joey (Bria McLaughlin) is on a mission. Ten years ago, the night of her high school prom, an injured swan was brutally killed and dismembered at Cootes Paradise (a wetland on the west side of Hamilton Harbour), and the perpetrator was never found. She and a group of friends had tried to solve the mystery back then, but came up empty and gave up.

Despite her older sister Bill’s (Michelle Chiu) skepticism, Joey gets the gang back together in an awkward sort of reunion. Once a tight group of lesbian friends, they formed an environmental group at their now decommissioned, abandonned school in an effort to affect positive change in their city: Rachel (Isabel Kanaan), Piper (Christine Nguyen) and Ron (Angela Sun). The fifth member of the group, Jenna Lynn (Marina Moreira) went missing the night of the prom. And the papers made a bigger deal about the swan.

A horrific trail of clues – photographs of their local hang-outs, each one accompanied by growing numbers of bird carcasses – leads them around the city as they hunt for the swan killer. As they grow weary of their fruitless efforts, suspicion arises. Is the killer among them? Loyalties come into question as memories of some ugly interactions emerge, including Jenna Lynn’s expulsion from the group. All is revealed in the disturbing ending, as mystery turns supernatural.

Excellent work from this cast of women in this spooky, quick-paced tale of otherness and search for the truth. As Joey, McLaughlin is a born leader; an inspiring, determined and cunning negotiator with a lot of smarts and a quick wit, Joey has struggled through her own life-changing injury and has made a modest name for herself as a writer. As Joey’s big sis Bill, Chiu brings a nice combination of cynicism and wariness; Bill thinks Joey and her friends are nuts for trying to solve this case, but she’s also concerned for her sister’s welfare and longs to build a brighter future for what’s left of their family.

Kanaan gives Rachel a great sense of inner conflict; once the class over-achiever, type-A Rachel is in a rut. Ten years after high school, she’s still working as a lifeguard at the local rec centre – and re-opening the case of the murdered swan has sparked her dulled ambition. Nguyen’s Piper is a quirky delight; a lanky athlete with a huge appetite. The peacemaker of the group, she just wants everyone to chill and get along.

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Angela Sun, Isabel Kanaan & Christine Nguyen in Swan

As Ron, Sun is the hasbien of the group, who went on to a traditional, “respectable” heterosexual marriage complete with kids and church activities. Sun gives her some deep tones, though; as we learn that Ron is good at keeping secrets and forgetting things, as well as putting up with some clueless everyday racism – dressed up as cultural interest – from her husband. Moreira’s Jenna Lynn is a lovely combination of bashful and forceful; coming late into the group, it’s Jenna Lynn who takes them in a more effective direction as they comb the community page of the Spec (the Hamilton Spectator) for local problems to solve.

All are outsiders by virtue of their ethnicity, colour and/or sexuality. An all are adrift in lives interupted; seeking identity, and a sense of belonging and purpose. Like the characters in Jan’s Rowing, there’s a feeling of being trapped in a city that doesn’t want them and has nothing for them – even as they struggle to make the best of it and make something of themselves. If they could just solve this mystery, things will turn around for them. And, like it’s sister play Tire Swing, Swan is a dark tale of memory, traumatic experience and mystery.

Former high school pals reunite to solve an old, gruesome mystery in the dark, macabre, thoughtful Swan.

Swan continues in the TPM Backspace till Nov 13; get your tix online or call 416-504-7529. Please note the 7:30 curtain time for evening performances.

A boy goes missing & a dark presence reaches out from the forest in lyrical, spooky Tire Swing

 

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Nikki Haggart, Jocelyn Adema & François Macdonald, with Patrick Fowler in the background, in Tire Swing – photo by Jordan Laffrenier

Filament Incubator is back again with its 5th play of its #8playsin8months season, this time in association with Epigraph Collective on a production of Curtis te Brinke’s Tire Swing, directed by Sadie Epstein-Fine and running at Kensington Hall (in Kensington Market at 56C Kensington Ave., Toronto).

Four pre-teen friends playing on the edge of town go deep into the forest as twilight descends – and only three of them come out. Was it a shadow monster or a man they saw? And what happened to Kevin (Patrick Fowler)? Kevin’s sister Ellen (Nikki Haggart), and friends Mark (François Macdonald) and Lauren (Jocelyn Adema), struggle to come to terms with what happened – as well as their own sense of survivor guilt – as a town mourns a lost boy, presumed dead.

As the three friends grow up into high school seniors, they find they can’t deny what they saw in the forest that fateful night. The thing that didn’t make it into the police reports. The thing they’ve spoken of to no one – not even each other. Until now. Mark is convinced that something is after them. And they can all feel something watching them from darkness.

The cast does an awesome job with the storytelling. As the young group’s leader Kevin, Fowler brings a fearless, adventurous, devil-may-care attitude – along with something strange and otherworldly that you can’t quite put your finger on. And he gives their high school classmate David a cocksure but congenial confidence and presence; the school’s golden boy, David is brave on the rugby field, he can’t find the courage to come out and be open about his burgeoning relationship with Mark.

As Mark, Macdonald is the investigator of the group; cynical and not content with taking things at face value, he wants to know the truth – and he questions everything and isn’t afraid to believe the unthinkable. As Mark explores his sexuality, perhaps David reminds him of Kevin; and like their friend Lauren, he had a crush on Kevin when they were kids. Adema’s Lauren is the heart and soul of the group; a dreamy, star-gazing academic, she was the last one to see Kevin – and feels the most guilt for running away that night. As Kevin’s sister Ellen, Haggart is the emotion of their gang, especially the rage. An earthy soul, Ellen’s feelings emerge as physical sensations tied to the land, the trees, even her brother’s bedroom – left untouched in denial of his loss and anticipation of his return.

Part memory play, part ghost story, part coming of age story, Tire Swing scoops you up into a Stand By Me meets X-Files world of mystery and nightmare. The language is rich, even poetic at times; and the staging is atmospheric and spooky.

With shouts to designer Jason Thomson (set, costumes, lighting) for the eerie multi-media environment – featuring some very cool, evocative projection imagery – putting the audience in the middle of the forest, with the three surviving kids’ bedrooms around the edges.

A boy goes missing and a dark presence reaches out from the forest in lyrical, spooky Tire Swing.

Tire Swing continues at Kensington Hall until Oct 22; it’s an intimate space, so you may want to book tix in advance – and please note the 7:30 curtain time.

Up next, Filament Incubator joins forces with Little Black Afro Theatre to produce Filament Incubator producer/playwright Aaron Jan’s Swan, a sister piece to Tire Swing running November 3-13 in the Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace.

In the meantime, check out the awesome trailer for Tire Swing by Andrew Pieroni: